Memphis in May, now celebrating its 32nd year, seems like an event that will hold a permanent place on our city's calendars. But just 10 years ago, it was struggling to survive. In our May 6, 1999, cover story, "At the Crossroads," Marilyn Sadler (now senior editor of Memphis magazine), explored the organization's "tragedy, turmoil, and brush with bankruptcy."
She began her investigation by looking at the death of promoter Bob Kelley, who had been responsible for booking most of the top musical acts that came to Memphis:
"Whatever reasons Kelley had for ending his life — and some say changes with the Beale Street Music Festival had nothing to do with it — his death was one of numerous controversies that plagued the 1998 festival. Despite glorious sunny weather, attendance figures for the music festival dropped to 79,000, a 30 percent decrease from the previous year.
"Wes Brustad, who was hired as executive director in 1997 after an almost year-long search, announced his resignation shortly after the festival, but not before drawing both criticism and praise for changes he enacted, including severing ties with Kelley.
"But the most significant legacy left by Brustad and the MIM board's executive directors is one that the current regime is saddled with now. In October 1998, an audit showed a deficit of $592,375 — the largest in the organization's 22-year history. Reporting that MIM had suffered a substantial operating loss, as well as deficits in operating capital, the audit stated, 'These matters raise substantial doubt about the festival's ability to continue as a going concern.'"